Marion Davies with BFF Billie Dove in BLONDIE OF THE FOLLIES
Turner Classic Movies is paying all-day tribute to the delicious Marion Davies on Monday, August 3, and are showing her best film , BLONDIE OF THE FOLLIES, from that greatest-of-Hollywood-film-years-to-me, 1932 (forget Hays Code-strapped 1939) at 1:45 PM. Critic Pauline Kael once described the movie as having an F. Scott Fitzgerald quality, and she was right. From a snappy, wondrously loose and keenly observed script by those pioneering movie women, Frances Marion and Anita Loos, that Renaissance Man, bisexual Director Edmund Goulding (who also wrote, composed songs and even did Garbo’s hair in LOVE) lavished considerable care, savviness and affection on this irresistible rags-to-riches compendium of backstage drama, romance, glamour, and heartbreak., which also happens to be one of the truest portraits of feminine friendship ever filmed.
In it, Davies plays Blondie McClune, a tenement girl forever fighting and then making up with her neighbor, Lottie Callahan (Billie Dove, at the time considered the most beautiful American woman), a BFF if e’er there was. The film is tastily autobiographical, as both of these actresses got their starts as Ziegfeld Follies beauties long before Hollywood, and their back-stories are shrewdly incorporated into the script.
Lottie soon splits the slums, changes her name to Lurline Cavanaugh (!), and becomes a big Follies star with all the attendant affectations, jewels, furs, penthouse and admirers, dominated by feckless playboy Larry Belmont (Robert Montgomery), whom she chicly calls “Boy,” like a character out of Michael Arlen or Noel Coward. She returns to her old neighborhood – mostly to strut her new, glamorous stuff – and winds up taking Blondie under her wing, a good deed she soon learns to regret.
Blondie crashes into the Follies, becomes a star as well, and engages the very serious attention of Larry. Lottie does a slow burn, which turns into an eruption wherein she and Blondie revert to their hair-pulling, squabbling childhood ways. Blondie tries her best to be a true friend and resist Larry, but this proves unsuccessful, with disastrous and scandalous onstage results.
Loos, fresh from her GENTLEMAN PREFER BLONDES book success, provides the pungent wit with her gorgeously observed dialogue, from the down-to-earth tenement patter of Blondie’s family (“Stop crying into the stew, Ma,” warns her sister, played by the invaluable, wrist fluttering Zasu Pitts, “It’s thin enough already”) to Lottie’s hilarious, nouveau-riche swanning, which includes some high-falutin’ French phraseology (“Oh, Lottie, you’re a scream!” cries Blondie. ‘Lurline!’ her friend corrects her, for what must be the umpteenth time.).
The love triangle situation shouldn’t really be as affecting as it is here, but so strong is the chemistry between Montgomery (at his light comedic deftest, with that pursed lip canary-swallowing cat’s grin) and the ladies who love him that you’ll find yourself catching your breath at certain moments. Montgomery is fully aware of how irresistible he is, and has, in fact, already warned an unheeding Dove of the casualness of their affair. Dove, for her part, is simply dazzling (one can see why men like Howard Hughes went absolutely ape-shit over her): intense and overwrought, her lush, dark beauty a perfect foil to Davies’ blonde, cherubic sunniness. The women share a wrenchingly emotional scene in which Lottie forces a confession of love for Larry out of Blondie, a sequence which mounts with operatic power, culminating in Davies’ throbbingly hysterical admission with Dove keeping enflamed pace with her, both actresses’ finest onscreen moment.
Goulding cannily showcasing the actresses’ particular talents. The voluptuous Dove, sexily draped by Adrian in swaths of strung pearls, strikes a haughty pose like a ship’s figurehead in one musical number, while riding a car onto the stage, while Davies’ famed talent for mimicry is showcased in her backstage introduction where she apes the baby-talk of some dimwitted showgirl (while campily greeting the entire chorus line with “See you later, queens!”). One of the numerous party scenes has her and and guest star Jimmy Durante hilariously parodying Garbo and John Barrymore in GRAND HOTEL. As with her impersonations of Lillian Gish, Pola Negri and Mae Murray in THE PATSY, Davies does not stint from going all the way into grotesqueness, and her dire eye-rollings and downturned M of a mouth (for “Morbid”) effectively send up the Lonely Swede for all time.
The supporting cast is unusually strong. Besides Pitts, James Gleason plays Davies’ disapproving father who throws her out when she doesn’t come home one night, and, later, has a heartbreaking scene with her when, cowed with worry, he comes to visit her in her swell new surroundings. Sarah Padden is convincingly careworn as his tearful wife, and Sidney Toler is amusing as Pitt’s husband who at one point wishes he were a girl so he could go into the Follies too, for an easy life. Douglas Dumbrille gives a wry performance as a monied stage door Johnny, with his mantra, “I like blondes.” Goulding himself even pops up in a cameo as the particularly dapper stage director who urges everyone to “Keep things moving!” when an onstage fiasco occurs.
And there’s a fascinating appearance by the Rocky Twins, who back up Davies during a wacky pirate dance number (which fulfilled her sponsor/lover William Randolph Hearst’s fetishistic mandate of having her appear in boyish drag at least once in every film). The Rocky Twins were Norwegian brothers Leif and Paal Roschberg, who became famous onstage for their drag impersonation of the famous Dolly Sisters act, working at the Casino de Paris and with stars like Gina Palerme and Mistinguette, and being filmed by Marcel L’Herbier in L’ARGENT (1929). They made it to Hollywood, where at the Ship Café in Venice Beach they did their drag act and got hired by Goulding to appear in this film, the same year that the director would be involved in a scandal involving one of the wild parties (read: orgies) he customarily threw.
The Rocky Twins
and as the Dolly Sisters (below)
(Read more about them here:
Hearst’s stranglehold over Davies’ career, in which he preferred seeing her flouncing about in costumes “with dignity” and tried to secure dramatic roles for her like Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Marie Antoinette (both of which went to The Lady of MGM, Norma Shearer), makes it even more of a miracle that a good, individual vehicle like this one for her even made it to the screen intact. Well, “intact” is equivocal even here: so effective was Dove’s film-stealing performance that large portions of it were cut from the final edit. In every scene, Davies justifies the blind devotion he felt for her, with her fathomless radiance, humor and heart. No one ever had a bad word to say about the actress off-screen, either, apart from the indefatigably acerbic Dorothy Parker who, after a visit to the Hearst-Davies love nest, San Simeon, once wrote:
Upon my honor, I saw a Madonna,
Standing in a niche.
Above the door
Of a prominent whore
Of a prominent son of a bitch.